Leicester and Soar River Navigations

Leicester and Soar Navigations History

Thomas Skipworth of Cotes gained a grant from Charles I to make the river Soar "portable for barges and boats" though the scheme was never completed.

The prominent businessmen of Loughborough secured an Act of Parliament to make the Soar navigable from their town, northwards,to the Trent near Long Eaton. The engineers in charge were John Smith and John May.

The Loughborough Canal opened and was a roaring (or soaring!) success, making the town quite prosperous.

An Act of Parliament was passed to extend the navigation from Loughborough in two directions; One route was to head west from Loughborough to numerous coal mines, the other line was to head southwards into Leicester. Work began with William Jessop in charge of engineering.

The Leicester Canal was opened making the Soar navigable for almost 40 miles. The western line was also opened - known as the Charnwood Forest Branch. However, most of the branch was made up ofrail tracks rather than a waterway. This included a 2½ mile uphill climb from Loughborough Basin.

At the western end of the branch rail lines travelled towards Coleorton and Swannington. A track to Cloudhill, which would have connected to similar lines on the Ashby Canal, was proposed but never built.

Another branch line (operated by a separate company) opened from the main line of the Leicester Canal (between Cossington and Syston) to Melton Mowbray.

The line was 15 miles long and used the River Wreak for virtually the whole of its course. The line was sometimes known as the Wreak Navigation though it is better known as the Melton Mowbray Navigation. This new line was so successful that within a year William Jessop was appointed to survey another new line which would extend the Melton Mowbray Navigation to Oakham in Rutlandshire, a further 15 miles. The extension would be called the Oakham Canal.An Act of Parliament was passed and work began.

While the lines to Leicester and Melton Mowbray were doing very well, trade on the Charnwood Forest Branch was very slow to pick up. The company even put on demonstrations in an attempt to encourage its use. With no real success being gained from this the company went into the coal carrying and selling business itself.

A proposal to extend the main line of the Leicester Canal much further south was announced. A new canal, the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union Canal would link the river Soar with the river Nene. However, like many great ideas, the money ran out before the imagination did and the line reached just 17 of the proposed 44 miles, coming to a stop at Debdale Wharf near Kibworth Beauchamp.

Thus the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Canal never even got close to Northamptonshire. In fact, the whole project had proved to be something of a failure, the company having spent thousands of pounds building a waterway which past nowhere in particular and ended in middle of the countryside miles from any major town.

Meanwhile, the Charnwood Forest Branch was still struggling to attract any trade. Water supply was one reason for lack of use so the company built Blackbrook Reservoir. Following this, trade picked up but only very slightly.

Heavy rainfall caused Blackbrook Reservoir on the Charnwood Forest Branch to collapse. Floods destroyed an aqueduct and part of an embankment. Repairs were begun but the branch was closed for a number of years.

The Grand Junction Canal opened between London & Birmingham. A link between the Leicester Navigations and this new "high speed" route seemed an obvious choice and the Grand Junction Company were keen to see a link which would connect their route to the north.However, because there were still plans for the Leicester navigations to be extended towards Northampton, the Grand Junction did not attempt to create a link themselves. Instead they waited to see what developed - at first this turned out to be very little.

Repairs on the Charnwood Forest Branch were completed. Sadly, the company failed to regain even the small amount of use there had been before the floods of 1799.

A few years later more damage occurred and the company sought permission to officially abandon the route. However, they were constantly denied permission due to objections from Lord Shaftesbury. This was not because he wanted to use the route himself but (apparently) because he had fallen out with the company over certain issues! For nearly half a century the company were forced to keep the unused (and unusable) branch "officially" open.

The Oakham Canal opened after costing almost £70,000 to build. It was 15 miles long, with 19 broad locks. Boats could now travel onto the River Soar from Rutlandshire.

The main line of the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Canal was extended from its resting place near Kibworth Beauchamp to Market Harborough where once again the work came to a stop. All the same, it was now a considerable navigation, linking the south of Leicestershire to the river Trent. However, there was still no link to the Grand Junction Canal.

By now ideas of connecting Leicester to Northampton seemed pointless. The Grand Junction Canal was running a tramway into Northampton and would surely soon convert this to a full navigation.The obvious thing to do now was to connect the Leicester navigations to the Grand Junction Canal.

Work began with Benjamin Bevan appointed as engineer. However, much to the annoyance of the Grand Junction Company, the new canal was to be build to narrow lock standards. The Grand Junction Canal had tried for many years to promote the advantages of wide canals and had tried to convince many waterways to convert to broad dimensions. In most cases (as with this new canal) finances made the idea of a broad route impossible. The new link had to climb two massive hills and cut through two tunnels, a narrow route was the only option.

When it became clear that the Leicester businessmen had given up on the idea of connecting their waterways to the River Nene it left the businesses of the Fenlands without a link into the main system. A number of plans were put forward to rekindle the idea of a link between the River Nene & Leicester. One idea was to connect the River Nene at Stamford to the River Soar via the Oakham Canal and Melton Mowbray Navigation. Another proposal planned a connection from the Nene at Stamford to the canal at Market Harborough.Unfortunately both Bills failed to get through Parliament in 1811.A few years later the Grand Junction Company connected their main line to the River Nene in Northampton.

The new link between the Leicester navigations and the Grand Junction Canal opened and was named the Grand Union Canal (not to be confused with the later canal route of the same name). A junction with the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union Canal was made at Foxton, turning the Market Harborough stretch into a branch line off the new main line.

The southern end of the new main line ran into the Grand Junction Canal at Norton Junction near Buckby. The new link was built on very hilly terrain necessitating a long winding course, two large lock flights at either end (at the villages of Watford and Foxton) and two tunnels. Three reservoirs were needed to supply the link with a lot of water because the large lock flights meant most of its water was lost into other canals at each end.

The Grand Union Canal allowed boats to travel from London to Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and the north via a much shorter route than previously.However, the line was not the instant success that the company had hoped for. Most of the boats on the Grand Junction were broad beam and could not enter the link at all and hold ups on the long narrow lock flights did nothing to encourage narrow boats either.

After just 44 years the Oakham Canal was abandoned. The main reason for its demise was the usual story of railway competition.After closure of the canal the railway took over parts of the bed. The Melton Mowbray Navigation which had shared a basin with the Oakham Canal in Melton Mowbray continued to operate for many years after the arrival of the railways.

The owners of the River Soar Navigation were finally able to officially abandon the Charnwood Forest Branch which had stood idle since 1801. A local land owner applied to buy part of the land through which the branch past, he was granted permission and an Act was passed to allow the branch to be abandoned. (See below for a description of the Charnwood Forest Branch route).

After 80 years the Melton Mowbray (or Wreak) Navigation also closed leaving Melton Mowbray with no waterway outlet to the main canal system. Of course by now railways were by far the dominant freight carriers in the area.

Mr. Fellows of Fellows, Morton & Clayton (who were the main carriers on the Grand Union link) pushed the company to convert the canal to wide beam. When this was not done he tried to encourage the Grand Junction Company to buy the link.

The Grand Union and the Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union canals were purchased by the Grand Junction Canal Company. By now though even the Grand Junction Company wasn't whole-heatedly in favour of widening the link. Instead they looked into methods of making the lock flights more efficient. The simple answer was to make a duplicate flight alongside the existing locks to make two way traffic but this would cause other problems, especially water supply which was already a major headache.

Work began on a bold idea to build inclined planes by the side of the Foxton and Watford locks. Planes had been used successfully a hundred years earlier in Shropshire but this was to be a much grander construction with two caissons each able to carry two boats and with steam power used to lift the caissons up and down the hillside. The Grand Junction's own engineer, G.C. Thomas was given the job of designing the planes. A prototype model was constructed at the Grand Junction Canal's maintenance yard at Bulbourne.

After successful tests on the model of the inclined plane, work began for real at Foxton.

The plane took two years to complete and cost £39,000. At just 12 minutes a ride it cut nearly 80 minutes off the time normally taken to use the narrow locks but unfortunately the plane turned out to be not far short of a total failure. Its structure had many faults and the rails under the caissons collapsed a number of times under their heavy weight. Trade was declining too and because the steam engine had to be ready at a moments notice if a boat turned up, it proved far too costly to keep it in steam permanently. Long periods could pass with no boats at all while the cost of steam was (literally) going up in smoke.

The plan to construct a second plane on the Watford flight was dropped and the narrow locks were never replaced by wide ones.

Working absurdly below its potential Foxton Inclined Plane was closed at night time and the old narrow locks were reopened for night traffic.

Foxton Plane was closed completely and all traffic reverted to the lock flight once more though the incline was used from time to time during lock maintenance and repairs.

For 4 years the plane was maintained with a view to it reopening if trade picked up. This was completely ruled out when WW1 began and from then the plane was left to decline.

Foxton Incline was dismantled and sold for scrap though its site is still clearly marked a few yards to the east of the lock flight at Foxton.

The whole stretch of waterway from Norton Junction through to Leicester and on to Long Eaton was merged with the Grand Junction Canal to form the Grand Union Canal.

The remains of Foxton Inclined Plane are preserved and can be visited free of charge. Currently there is little to see apart from a grassy bank and a few bricks forming the base of the top basin and steam house. Some form of restoration is planned but "surely" they do not expect to rebuild a fully working plane.... do they?

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Leicester and Soar Navigations Route

The Grand Union Canal - Leicester Section is described in all up to date canal guides, it is fully navigable and therefore I have not included a full route description. Instead, I have picked out a few of my personal favourite locations.

Among the route's more interesting places is Loughborough town centre where support is needed to keep the old basin alive. Plans were announced in 1997 to fill it in and build on it. It is now 220 years since the basin was first opened, making it one of the oldest in Britain.

The A6 runs through the centre of town right past the basin.The Charnwood Forest Branch began in Loughborough but because its first few miles were railway rather than waterway it is not until Nanpantan that any traces can be found. (See below for a description of the Charnwood Forest Branch).

Barrow-on-Soar and Mountsorrel are very nice areas and are both easily found near the old A6, just off the new A6. Both have a lock and a nice canal side pub along with old canal side buildings.

I would not advise my worst enemy to drive through Leicester. I'm pretty good at finding my way across any town and rarely get lost but I've been to Leicester twice and got completely lost twice. The ring roads are a disgrace, numerous junctions have no sign posts at all! If you wish to visit the canal locations within the city boundaries I strongly advise buying a street atlas.

If you manage to make your way to the south of the city and onto the A6 things get a lot easier. The former Leicestershire & Northamptonshire Union Canal can be found along any lane west of the A6 from Great Glen to Market Harborough. This includes around 16 locks, one tunnel and the remains of the Foxton Inclined Plane.

To reach the inclined plane and the 10 locks alongside it you need to take the A6 south east of Leicester (if you dare) until you reach the B6047.Take this road south towards Market Harborough, within ½ a mile you will cross the Market Harborough Arm.

Within another ½ a mile you need to turn right onto a minor road. This comes to a junction after about 2 miles. At the junction you can turn right to see the pretty village of Foxton, go straight ahead through a gate into the marina at the bottom of the locks or go left.

The left turn heads south west and after about ¾ of a mile you come to a wooded car parking area on your left. This is the car park and picnic area of a local nature trail but it is also the official parking place for visitors to the canal at Foxton. The canal is just a few yards further along the lane.

Once at the canal you should head north for about 400 yards, this will bring you to the top of the 10 Foxton Locks - it is a marvellous sight.From the top you can see that the locks are in 2 staircase flights of 5. Between the 2 staircases is a small pound where boats can pass. Alongside the locks are large side ponds used to reduce the amount of water used.To the right, beyond the ponds, is a building with a flat roof.

This is now Foxton Canal Museum (well worth a visit) though it used to be a pumping station. Beside you at the top of the locks is a white lock keepers cottage, next door is a workshop which is often open to the public. On the far side of the top lock is a second water channel, this used to be the route to the top of the inclined plane.

To see the site of the incline you must cross the canal via one of the small bridges over the locks. These bridges give a brilliant bird's eye view of the lock flight. Pathways lead between the side ponds to the back of the museum (at roof level).

When you arrive at the back of the museum you are actually standing at the top of the incline in the position where boats once entered the huge caissons. Ahead of you a slope drops down very steeply into some bushes. This is the top half of the incline. Some bits of the original rails still lie in the bank.

It is possible to step onto the roof of the museum, once again this gives marvellous views of the lock flight. The reason the roof is flat is because it used to have a building on it - the engine house for the incline I believe. It is possible to walk down the incline, heading at "10 o'clock" down the slope.

This will bring you past a number of large museum exhibits to a road which crosses the lower arm leading to the incline. This arm is now used for private moorings and therefore cannot be walked along. From the bridge walk up the road to the bottom of the locks. On a hot summer day this area will be buzzing with sightseers. There is a pub, a cafe and boat trips available at the bottom of the flight. In my opinion Foxton is one the very best canal locations in the country. A "gongoozlers" delight!

Another interesting site on the Leicester section of the Grand Union Canal is Watford Locks - better known to motorists as Watford Gap. To reach here a bit of walking is called for but its a nice walk! The easiest way to direct you here by road is by exiting the M1 at junction 18 (Rugby).Head south on the A5 for just under 4 miles to the B4036. Turn left onto this road and you will soon see the Stag's Head pub. Park nearby.By the way, its an excellent pub with nice food and a nice canal side garden. From the pub you need to walk further down the road, across the canal bridge and onto the canal.

The M1 motorway is very close and very loud here just to the east. Once on the canal you need to walk north for about 800 yards. First you will pass 2 single locks and then come to a sharp right hand turn. Right in front of you is a staircase of 4 locks which seem to tower above you up the hill. At the top there is a large side pond and one more single lock. From a "gongoozlers" point of view I was a bit unlucky when I made my only visit here.

On the other hand I saw something you don't usually see in mid-summer - a lock flight with no gates. Maintenance was going on and the lock sides were being painted. The canal was virtually dry, just a few puddles with small fish desperately wriggling about to survive. It was possible to stand over the locks and look right to the bottom of the flight through the open gates. One boat crew had not read the messages posted along the route. They arrived at the bottom lock and were left with no choice other than to drag their hired boat back along the canal. If you are feeling fit you can walk north east a further 1½ miles along the towpath. This will take you under the M1 to Crick Tunnel which is said to be haunted!

Back on the road, travel south on the A5 for a further 1½ miles. On route you will pass over the Leicester section but at the 1½ mile mark you will cross the Grand Union main line beside the Boat Inn and Buckby Top Lock. To the south east are 6 more locks but about 600 yards north west is Norton Junction where the route to Leicester begins. At the junction is a fair sized junction house while in the "V" of the junction is a much smaller house now used as a holiday cottage, available from "Country Holidays". This small cottage used to be a toll office.

Charnwood Forest Branch

First of all it should be noted that there is no forest anywhere near this canal. If there ever was, it has long since gone.

The branch began in Loughborough but its first few miles were made up of railway line. At Nanpantan the waterway began and it's course can still be found, the village is on the B5350 some 2½ miles south west of Loughborough.

About 300 yards east of the village crossroads is a public footpath which is, in parts, the original towpath. It runs besides gardens - some of which have made use of the canal bed. Near the entrance to Longcliffe Golf Club (about 400 yards along the towpath) the canal was crossed by Nook Lane. This road runs north from Nanpantan to the A512. From Nook Lane the branch can be followed west through the golf course until the M1 blocks its passage.

Immediately after the motorway the branch heads north west to the outskirts of Shepshed though parts of the route have been wiped out by new housing and a cemetery. Past the town the canal meanders about for around 3 miles to Osgathorpe. At least 2 minor roads running north off the A512 cross the branch on this section. Although the bridges on these roads have been flattened, the course of the canal can still be seen.

Past Osgathorpe there was a short arm which ran south to the west of Thringstone. On the junction where the Thringstone Arm begins is a house which was once the company toll office. The branch terminus was on the A512 beside a stream close to the junction of the minor road to the B5324. From here a number of rail tracks ran south to local mines.

The Charnwood Forest Branch ended about ¾ of a mile north of the junction, near Worthington, at Barrow Hill. Once again, rail tracks then extended the route to local mines. Barrow Hill is on the north side of the B5324.

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